Separation was agony.
There was no greater pain than to be forcibly parted from the one whom you loved most, to know not whether she was alive or dead… to spend every moment acutely cognizant of her absence… to be dependent upon others for tidings of her fate… all while the world went on around you like your woes were of little consequence, mattering nothing in the grand scheme of things.
Elffled had cried until her eyes were dry as the desert, until there were no more tears remaining to be shed. "Tears like rivers," she thought, "surely more than enough to fill all the pots and kettles which the scullery slaves have labored upon this afternoon." She had never thought that she would be grateful to help with the cleaning of the cooking utensils, but she knew that if she did not have something to occupy her mind, her grief would crush her.
Two days had passed since the horrible night when the uruks had raided the camp. Though they doubted that the uruks would attack the camp again, the slaver's chief men did not want to take any unnecessary chances. They decided to move the camp to a safer location, an excellent defensive position on the crest of a high plateau. The place, which accorded them a view of the country all around, could be guarded more easily with the reduced number of men still serving with the caravan. They would occupy the place a few days until it was determined whether Esarhaddon would live or not.
Shading her eyes against the fierce glare of the sun, Elffled looked far away across the stony plain, wishing for the sight of a returning scout. She pulled back the scarf upon her head, hoping that the weak breeze might cool her perspiration-drenched face, but it did little except toss her golden hair wildly about her face. The days since the raid had been long, lonely and trying. She could still not believe that Elfhild was really gone, kidnapped and carried away by rebel uruks. The worry and anxiety that she felt for her master Esarhaddon were nothing compared to the anguish which she felt for her sister. Yes, she would grieve if he succumbed to his wounds, but there would be other masters, and perhaps they would be far richer and more powerful - not to mention kinder - than Esarhaddon uHuzziya. There would never be another sister, though, who was so identical to her that sometimes they even shared the same dreams.
This was the first time the twins had ever been parted, and Elffled felt the bitter pain of losing half of her being. Although the girls in the troop had been sympathetic, there were few to whom she could turn for the kind of comfort that she needed. Certainly there had been those who seemed compassionate, but none could share the agony of her loss, for none of them had a twin. Even Tove and Cyneburh had plied her with condolences, but Elffled had detected a note of satisfaction under their pretty words. "The treacherous snakes," Elffled had raged to herself. "They are glad that Elfhild is gone!"
Leogifu, occupied with her new duties and her overwhelming passion for Ali, had sought Elffled out shortly after the abduction. "I wonder how she has time to keep away from that lout long enough to see me," Elffled silently fumed. Clasping her to her bosom in a limp embrace and fussing over her too much than was necessary, Leofgifu had simpered, "She was such a dear girl," as though Elfhild were already dead. Although Elffled had endured the insincere show of concern, she had resented her aunt's falseness. Only Hunig, who was too young to have been corrupted by adult deceits, was honest. The little girl had been reserved and shy at first, but when Elffled bent down and held out her arms, the child had rushed into her embrace, crying as though her heart were breaking.
"I want cousin Elfhild back!" Hunig had wailed, wrapping her arms around Elffled's neck.
"We all do," Elffled tried to smile bravely.
"Do you think the great Shakh's men will be able to rescue her?" Hunig looked directly into Elffled's eyes, hoping to winnow out the truth from the usual pleasant, meaningless words which adults used to comfort children.
"They are searching for her and the other girl," Elffled hedged around the question. "When they find them, the men will do everything in their power to bring them back safely." She knew how her little cousin had always been especially close to Elfhild, and how heartbroken the child would be if she did not return. That thought was far too painful, and, blinking back the tears which sprang to her eyes, Elffled chased the depressing notion from her mind.
"You really do not know anything, do you?" Hunig demanded accusingly. "Why do you not just tell me the truth?"
"The truth is that I do not know, but certainly the men are doing everything they can to find her." Elffled knew the answer did not satisfy the little girl, but it was all that she had to offer.
When Akil came to escort her to Rose Petal's tent for her daily lessons, Elffled was impatient to escape the scullery. Perhaps the young eunuch had heard tidings of her sister and Özlem. When she saw that his usually smiling face was clouded with worry, her heart sank.
"Akil, has there been news?" Elffled asked, her voice tense.
"Little Mistress, we will discuss it on the way," he told her, his voice lowering. "Too many people around for us to talk privately." Akil noticed the girl's pale face and hollow eyes, and he wished he had some news that was more comforting. They walked on in silence for a while, Elffled following him dutifully.
"Akil, can you please tell me something now?" she asked when they were out of hearing range of the kitchen servants. "I do not think I can bear such suspense!"
"Little Mistress, although there is a constant string of scouts going to and fro with messages, there is only one thing that I can tell you for certain. Your sister's collar has been found, filed off and tossed among some rocks beyond the trail," Akil replied as he walked faster. "That was all that the searchers could find before they lost the trail in the desert. It seems that the uruks have been swallowed up by the desolate wastes."
"And the Master?" Elffled's voice quavered as she said his name.
"Lady, his condition remains perilous. The physician Tushratta has been with him almost constantly since he was wounded, only leaving for short periods to take some needed rest. He says little, but I know he fears infection might make the wounds go bad. They truly were grievous, and he lost much blood." The boy shook his head sadly, knowing that some of those wounds were on the Shakh's privy parts. Akil thought of his own condition, and for a fleeting instant, he relived the frightening memories of being castrated as a lad. No matter how he chafed under the yoke of slavery, he would not wish such a fate on any man.
"Oh, Akil," Elffled could only moan as she put her hand to her mouth.
"Lady, you must not lose hope for the Master, though. Surely as skilled and steeped as he is in the superior Eastern medicine, Tushratta knows ways to keep Death far from the Master's door," Akil replied consolingly.
"The damned uruks tortured him," Elffled choked out a sob as she halted on the path. "They would have tortured him to death if they had their way, and then when the guards rushed them, they stabbed him in the side!"
His dark brown eyes filled with compassion, Akil turned around to face the sobbing girl and put a comforting hand upon her shoulder. "Little Mistress, if this will give you solace, you should realize that the Gods were with him. Though the wound in his side was grievous, the blade hit no vital organ, deflecting instead off his ribs. While the injury is ghastly in appearance and cost him a lot of blood, it looks worse than it actually is." He gently rubbed her shoulder. "The Master is a strong and healthy man, and I do not think that this will be the blade that kills him." ...Unless it was poisoned, he thought grimly to himself.
"What do you think you're doing?" the gruff voice interrupted Elfhild's thoughts and sent them scattering. Scowling at her as she rose to her feet, the guard found her wide blue eyes looking down at him, disconcerting in their innocence. "Garn!" he thought. "The wench is taller than I am!" He had always considered himself tall for a goblin, and it was disconcerting to be around a human female who was at least a head taller than he was. Unconsciously, he straightened his slumping shoulders, stiffening his spine, and added a little to his height. "What's this?" He gestured with the head of his spear at the rough drawing of a flower sketched in charcoal on the cave wall.
"Oh, this?" Elfhild asked, her voice sweeter than honey dipping from the comb.
"Aye, that," the guard returned, shaking his spear more fiercely in the direction of the flower.
"That, you silly courier, is the Magic Flower that Unlocks the Secrets of Eternity. It grows in the Elf Queen's gardens." She smiled proudly as she motioned to the bloom. "I thought everyone knew that."
"Well, I don't care what it is," he spat out irritably as he shot a surreptitious glance at the flower. "I have more important things to do than look at some silly drawing. Now listen to me! The sun is coming up and it is time to sleep. The cook says for you to come back to the kitchen, so you might as well not try to argue. He's going to lock this section of the tunnels off until evening, and only those with the key are allowed to go inside after that." He again raised his spear aloft, sure that the girl had been properly intimidated by its threat. "Oh, by the way," he added as though an afterthought, "your friend has returned from the King's bed, somewhat bettered by his use, I hear it."
"Thank you," Elfhild remarked cheerfully, her blithesome smile hiding the pangs of dread she felt at the orc's words concerning Özlem. "I had finished my drawing anyway."
"Come along with you now!" the guard bristled, not liking so much happiness and joy. This was a bloody orc den, by the hair on the Dark Lord's reeking arse! This idiotic girl and her fancy drawing seemed somehow a corrupting influence. King Thaguzgoth ought to have her taken out and thrown over a cliff and be done with her.
Humming to herself, Elfhild followed the orc to the kitchen. She had a great deal about which to think. During the night, she had explored as much of the caverns as she could in the short time that she had been given. She was very thankful that the goblins had bolted torches to the cave walls at regular intervals, for the guttering light helped her find her way through the shadowy gloom. Some of the passages were natural, but others had been hollowed out of the rock by the goblins, their low ceilings and narrow sides reinforced by thick wooden beams. To remember where she had been, she had drawn charcoal flowers upon the walls, scribbles which would be considered nonsensical by the orcs, but possessing secret meanings known only to her. A lily meant a dead end; a daisy meant storerooms lay ahead; and other floral signs and symbols aided her in finding directions. Searching for a possible way to escape, she had investigated most of the storerooms and had been at the point of giving up all hope of escape when she had found a branching tunnel which, judging by all the cobwebs, seemed unused.
Following the winding passage, she had come to a solid oak door bound with iron hinges. Could the door go to a passage that led out of the cavern, or would it take her to a dungeon where anguished souls suffered in misery? She dared not push it open, but she found, halfway down the door, a small crack which offered a space big enough to use as a spy hole.
Bending down and leaning against the door, she peered through the small opening and sighed heavily as her hopes evaporated. There, on the other side of the door, was King Thaguzgoth's great hall, where the fires were burning low in the hearth. A few nobles lay across the table, sprawled in drunken stupor, while some of the King's ugly hounds thrashed and moaned in their sleep, chasing animals in dream. Her heart sank. "Out of the frying pan, into the fire," she mused. "It would be certain capture to go through this door!"
The whole effort of exploring the tunnel had been a waste. She wondered for a while about the purpose of the tunnel, since not once was the door opened during her brief time in the King's hall. Then it dawned upon her that the corridor where she had first been taken to the kitchens was much shorter. "This must be an old tunnel, but at some point, it was abandoned and a new tunnel excavated," she reasoned. While the corridor was useless as an escape route, the peep hole might make a good vantage point for spying upon the King's court. If only she could understand more than a few words of Black Speech!
When they came to the kitchen, the guard shoved her inside the door and then left, locking it behind him. At first Elfhild thought the kitchen was deserted, but then she could see a hunched figure by the glowing coals in the fireplace.
"Özlem!" Elfhild exclaimed, running to the fireplace. "Özlem!" she cried again, but the girl never raised her head. Filled with concern for her friend, Elfhild sat down beside the other girl and took her hands in hers. Her heart was gripped with dread when Özlem looked up at her. Already battered and bruised by the uruks during the journey to Kafakudraûg Cavern, Özlem's face was almost unrecognizable. Both eyes were swollen slits, and she had a deep gash running down the side of her bruised cheek and extending below her jawbone.
"That looks terrible," Elfhild exclaimed sympathetically. "It should be cleaned." Finding a rag, she dampened it with water from the well, and working as carefully as she could, she cleaned the blood and dirt from Özlem's face. She tried to keep her hands steady, but she could not completely still the trembling of her fingers. Seeing her friend in such a horrific state made her heart ache with pity, and she cursed the orcs for their crimes.
"The King raped me repeatedly, right in front of his men," Özlem sobbed. "I made the mistake of trying to fight him once, and you can see what he did to me! When he finished, he turned me over to his men, and then..." Unable to speak anymore, she broke off in great, racking wails which shook her entire body as though she were retching up all the bile from her stomach.
"Hold still," Elfhild murmured as she rung out the rag and moistened it with more water from the well. She tried to focus upon the task at hand instead of the pangs of utter helplessness which tore at her heart. "There, I think that will do it, if you will just stop crying." She gave Özlem a shaky smile which was meant to be encouraging, but she doubted the anguished girl even noticed. "Since the fire is almost out, the air has gotten a little chilly in here; let me stoke up the flames." Keeping up a string of nervous chatter, Elfhild added a few pieces of wood to the fireplace and shoved them onto the coals with a poker. Soon a bright blaze was glowing in the fireplace, its cheerful glow making the kitchen a little less dreary. "At least they provided us with blankets," she remarked as she placed a tattered blanket alongside the hearth. "Now sit right here for a while." She helped the dazed girl onto the improvised bed, and then went back to the well to fetch her a cup of water.
Sitting cross-legged beside the hearth, Özlem hunched forward and clutched the blanket around herself as though trying to hide from the world. "Elfhild, what are we going to do?" She looked to her with tear-swollen eyes.
"We are going to try to stay alive," Elfhild replied grimly as she sat down beside the other girl, "and if we can, we are going to escape."
"How?" Özlem barely dared to whisper as she dabbed her eyes with her sleeve. Taking the cup from Elfhild, she brought it up to her lips with shaking hands.
"That might be a problem." Elfhild sighed, her shoulders slumping. "If this cavern has any other entrances, I have not been able to find them. It would be impossible to scale the chimneys leading from the fireplaces, or any of the ventilation shafts... not unless we grow wings."
Setting the cup down on the hearth, Özlem looked around fearfully and then leaned towards Elfhild. "Have any of the orcs suspected your act?"
"No, I do not think so. These goblins are a superstitious lot, and they avoid me for the most part." A wry, morbid smile twisted up the corners of Elfhild's lips. "There are certain benefits in being mad. Since they think I am harmless, I can wander as I please, just so long as I do not try to go out the main entry. I cannot say that my explorations have been fruitful, but at least I know that there is no escape from this section of the cave."
Suddenly Özlem lunged forward and grasped Elfhild's shoulders in desperation. "You must keep trying to find a way out!" she hissed, her fingers digging into her flesh. "I do not want to spend the rest of my life as a whore for these accursed goblins!"
Frightened by Özlem's intensity, Elfhild cringed away from the other girl. "I - I will venture down some of the passages that branch from the main corridors tonight!" she exclaimed, her words coming out in a panicked jumble. "I will keep looking. I will not give up!" She felt the sudden urge to run and hide, from Özlem, from the orcs, from everyone, and then she felt like a faithless traitor for even harboring such a disloyal notion. Once again, her mind was troubled by the strange, insidious thoughts which had entered it unbidden the night she had been a helpless witness to Özlem's torment, and she had a vision of taking a knife and carving deep cuts into her arms. She clenched her fists, trying to banish the unsettling thoughts.
Seeing the fear in Elfhild's eyes, Özlem's expression softened into one of sympathy. "I did not mean to frighten you. I am just desperate to escape this horrible place. I can still feel the hands of all those orcs pawing over me." Shivering, she wrapped her arms around herself.
"There must be another entrance to this cave," Elfhild suggested helpfully, beginning to calm from her earlier fright. "Surely the orcs have built escape routes in case their lair is attacked." She felt like a failure for not having already found a door which led to the outside. If they did not escape, Özlem would continue to suffer, and her ineptitude would be as much to blame as the cruelty of the orcs.
"There are so many passages and tunnels in this place," Özlem remarked. "It would be so easy to become lost and come to a bad end. Your idea to mark your path with charcoal was a wise one."
Elfhild blushed, basking in the glow of Özlem's praise. "It also keeps our captors convinced that I am mad, for no one in their right mind would go around sketching flowers on the walls of an orc den."
Özlem giggled. "Not even an orc would do something that outrageous." The tremulous smile fading from her lips, she fell silent, pain and weariness catching up with her. It had been a long time since she had lain with so many fellows in a single night, and orcs and goblins were far from tender lovers. True, men could be just as brutal, but these foul monsters had fangs and claws, and their stench could cause a vulture to fall over dead.
Elfhild glanced over at the other girl and saw that while she was still awake, her eyes were growing heavy. "Özlem, you are sleepy," she told her, gently touching her shoulder. "Let us rest now."
As Elfhild lay upon her side, she listened to Özlem's gentle breathing and studied the flames in the fireplace. Though she was exhausted, she had difficulty falling asleep, for it seemed that all her worries came raining down upon her in flooding torrents. Even if they did not reach conscious thought, they were still there, keeping her in a state of perpetual vigilance and denying her the rest she so desperately needed. She curled up in a little ball, squeezing her eyes tightly closed and trying to shut out the world around her. Her eyes kept twitching beneath her eyelids as though she were compulsively blinking, an annoyance which she tried to ignore by gently rocking her upper body back and forth upon the stone floor.
The sun was high in the sky when Elfhild finally fell asleep, only to awaken with a shuddering sob a few moments later. Even with her eyes open, she could still see the horrifying images that filled her dream - Durraiz and Sulmûrz slapping their whips against their thighs as they sauntered towards her, wicked grins on their hideous faces. Coming up behind them was King Thaguzgoth and his men, who were waiting their turn to ravish her agonized, bleeding body.
"We must escape! We must!" Elfhild's tortured thoughts shrieked in desperation. "Starving to death in the desert is better than dying in this wretched place!"